The Best Tech Accessories for Cyclists | Tips & Tricks
You have a nice bike. You love riding your bike, but you’re also looking to add that one piece of gear that will take your ride from great to truly amazing. Worry not, friends, we have just what you need.
One of the coolest things about cycling is that it can be as simple or as advanced as you want it to be. If you want a pure, simple “analog” experience, you can absolutely have that. But if you want to add some tech to your ride, there are some very cool accessories to tech up your spin.
For example, you can dig into your cycling dynamics and stats with a smart cycling computer. Or you can up your indoor workout game with a smart trainer. If you’re looking for increased safety on the road, there are a lot of great accessories out there for that too! We’re going to take a closer look at all of those things (and more!)—let’s dig in.
Smart Cycling Computers: Advanced Statistics in a Small Package
If you’re a serious sort of cyclist, there’s a good chance you have some sort of cycling computer—be that a small head unit with a speed sensor, or even your smartphone. While those are both very useful, if you’re looking to get deeper statistics for each ride, you’re going to want a smart computer.
These computers look very similar to what you may be used to seeing: small, out-front head units that you can attach to your bike’s handlebars. The difference lies in what they can do versus your traditional computer or smartphone.
For one, these computers have a bevvy of of advanced features, like GPS activity tracking that’s more accurate than anything your smartphone can do, and the option to add third-party tools, like heart rate and cadence sensors, and a lot more.
Not only that, but the majority of these computers also offer cool features that allow other people to see your activity as you ride, which is an excellent safety feature. To further add to this, many also have some sort of accident detection that will alert specific people (user-defined, of course) if you were to get into an accident. They use built-in GPS and accelerometers to detect sudden changes in direction.
When it comes to choosing a cycling computer, there are two names that really stand above the rest: Garmin and Wahoo.
The former is a known giant in the GPS market, and offers the most popular cycling computers on the market with its Edge line. The latter, however, is a relative newcomer that has really been making waves in the cycling computer scene with its Elemnt computers.
Both companies have good breakdowns of what you can get with each computer on their respective websites, so if you’re it really comes down to figuring out how much (or little) computer you need, start there to compare—there are, however, benefits to going with Garmin, which we’ll talk about in the next section.
Smart Headlights/Taillights: See and Be Seen with These Tools
When it comes down to it, road cycling can be dangerous. You’re really exposing yourself out there—sharing the road with huge, speeding boxes of metal while putting your trust into the human being controlling them can be a little bit unnerving.
That’s why it’s imperative to be seen while you’re on the road. Bright colored cycling gear can help with this, but you can also take things a step further with smart lights. When it comes to smart lights, one brand stands above the rest: Garmin. Earlier I mentioned that there are benefits to going with Garmin for your head unit, and this—hands down—why you should.
The company offers both a headlight and taillight as part of its Varia series—these are smart safety accessories designed for cyclists and made to work with Garmin Edge head units. The Varia UT800 is an 800 lumen smart headlight that will automatically adjust brightness levels depending on outside conditions and pairs up with an Edge unit to for auto-on/off.
While the headlight is a cool accessory on its own, the taillight is where the Varia series really earns its keep as a safety system. The Varia Radar is so much more than a simple taillight—it’s an actual vehicle detection system that can alert you when cars are approaching from the rear. It indicates when cares are coming using digital indicators on the side of a compatible Edge head unit, as well as the speed of the approaching vehicle with a color coding system. If you don’t have an Edge head unit, there’s also a version of the radar with a standalone accessory that shows when cars are coming up behind you.
As useful as it is, however, it’s worth pointing out that the Radar is not meant as a replacement for turning around and looking behind you to see make sure the road is clear before turning, changing lanes, etc. But it’s great for staying alert and knowing when cars are approaching so you can make sure the drivers are being safe.
The newest version of the Varia Smart Headlight is $149, while the newest Radar (RTL510) starts at $199 for the unit only, and $299 for the standalone bundle.
Power Meter: A Way to Quantify How Hard You’re Really Working
When it comes to measuring work on the bike, speed, cadence, and heart rate data are only part of the story. And if you’re looking to step your training game up a notch, there is no better way to do it than with a power meter. These are accessories that measure the force in which you’re pushing down on the pedals (measure in Watts), which can give you very clear stats on how hard you’re working.
For example, let’s say you’re riding with a 12 MPH tailwind—you’ll be able to pull of higher speeds with less work; on the opposite side of that coin, you’ll work harder to go slow with a 12 MPH headwind. While this is reflected in your speed and possibly your heart rate data, your computer or tracking application has no way of knowing how hard you’re really working.
Similarly, if you’re thinking of getting into any sort of interval-based training, a power meter is the only way to know that you’re hitting “your numbers.” Otherwise, it’s “go as hard as you can for 90 seconds, then recovery for 90 seconds”—while that may work well for marginal gains in the beginning, you’ll get much better results when actual numbers are involved.
But power meters aren’t just for active racers looking to push high watts or do interval training. Power meters are also great for century or randonneur riders to help with pacing. The key to any endurance event is proper pacing, especially at the beginning. Many riders have a tendency to go out too hard at the start of a ride, only to lose all stamina later and either be unable to complete the ride or finish on a completely empty tank. Since a power meter quantifies how hard you’re actually working, it’s an excellent tool to help you prevent turning the pedals over too hard at the start of an event so you can make sure you have something left in the tank at the end of the ride.
There are three basic types of power meters available: pedal-based, crank- or spider-based, and hub-based. Accuracy will vary between the three types, as the further you move away from the point or origin (the pedals), the more the power drops. As a result, hub-based power meters are technically less accurate than their pedal- or crank-based counterparts. That doesn’t make them worse, however, because accuracy is relative—as long as your information is consistent, then your training will be effective.
The right power meter for you will also depend on your bike setup. For example, a hub-based power meter will require either an entirely new rear wheel, or your current wheel will need to be relaced with the new hub. The best hub-based power meters on the market today are made by a company called PowerTap. You can find options for both hubs and full wheelsets on their website, which range between $399 for the hub only to $2799 for carbon hoops laced to PowerTap hubs.
Other power meters will be easier to add to your bike, like Garmin’s Vector pedal-based power meter, for example. The Vector 3 pedals use Look Keo cleats are work as a left-and-right duo for power readings and balance. You can also buy a single-side vector pedal if cycling dynamics aren’t important to you—just keep in mind that this will be less accurate than a dual-sided setup. Of course, that also makes it significantly more affordable too: the dual-sided Vector setup will set you back a cool $999, while the single-sided pedal is $599.
When it comes to crank- and spider-based power meters, there are a lot of options out there. There’s Stages crank-based meters, which are extremely popular among budget-conscious cyclists because of their relatively low entry price points—prices start around $550 for a left-side crank. Recently, Stages released a dual-side crank system that can measure power from both legs, instead of just the left.
Shimano also makes a power meter for Dura-Ace systems, which is a classy, spider-based power meter that integrates cleanly into the overall look of Shimano’s Dura-Ace crank. But it’s also incredibly price at around $1500 for the crankset and power meter.
There are several other options out there, link Pioneer’s spider-based power meter, as well as other options from PowerTap (aside from the hub system).
When it comes down to it, it can be a challenge to pick the right power meter for you, because they can vary dramatically in price and features. Research will be key here, as every rider’s needs (and budget) are different.
Electronic Drivetrain: Shift with the Press of a Button
When most people hear about electronic drivetrains, their minds are blown. Traditionally, bike drivetrains work with a system of cables being pull to move the derailleurs and cause the chain to move. This is what I lovingly call the “analog” system, and it’s definitely not a bad thing.
But if you want positively fluid shifting a the click of a button, you’re going to want electronic shifting. This uses radio frequencies to communicate signals from the shifter to the derailleurs—just like turning your TV on and off. It’s brilliant, ultra smooth, and works well in basically all conditions.
And when it comes to electronic shifting, there are two names at the top of every list: Shimano’s Di2 and SRAM’s Red eTap. These two systems work very similarly to each other, so it really comes down to a matter of rider preference—if you’re a SRAM rider, you’ll love eTap; Shimano riders will likely prefer Di2 systems.
The primary different between two (at least outwardly) will be in how the shifting setup works. Shimano uses a more traditional layout where the right shifter controls the rear derailleur and the left shifter controls the front. Each shifter has to buttons: one to shift up, one to shift down.
SRAM, on the other hand, took a dramatically different approach with its shifting setup: the right shifter shifts the rear down, and the left one shifts up. Press both together to shift the front derailleur (it only works with double chainring systems). It’s very cool once you get used to it. And so simple!
Of course, Shimano and SRAM aren’t the only ones out there making electronic shifting systems—Rotor has one called Uno, and FSA recently brought its K-Force WE system to market, too (though we’ve yet to find this one available for sale).
Either way you go, expect to pay a pretty penny for an electronic system. Shimano Di2 comes in two levels: Ultegra and Dura-Ace. The latter is the more affordable of the pair, and can be found as low as $1300 in some places. Dura-Ace, on the other hand, will start somewhere around the $2300 range.
SRAM Red eTap groups generally start around $2000 and go up from there, depending on your setup (rim brake, disc brakes, etc.) Rotor Uno comes it at around $2500, though it’s hard to recommend it over any of the other options that are already available.
Smart Trainers: Indoor Riding with a Modern Twist
If there’s one common problem many cyclists face, it’s the lack of riding opportunities in the winter. It’s oftentimes too cold to get outside and ride, so many end up losing all the endurance and muscle they built up over the spring/summer/fall. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Many cyclists turn to indoor trainers to supplement their outdoor riding in the winter, which is a great answer to a common problem. If you’re looking to take that a step further, however, a smart trainer—or turbo trainer, as they’re often called—is the way to go.
Traditional indoor trainers come in three varieties: fan-based, magnet-based, and fluid-based. Each one has its own way of providing resistance, which is necessary for any sort of effective training. They’re designed to replicate the feeling of resistance you’d get from your bike rolling against pavement.
In order to control how hard you’re working on a traditional trainer, you have to shift—just like you do on the road. Smart trainers, on the other hand, allow for on-the-fly resistance adjustments, generally over Bluetooth. This means instead of using your shifters to control how hard you’re working, the trainer can do it for you.
This is useful for a variety of reasons. For example, you can pair a smart trainer with specialized software like that provided by TrainerRoad for off-season interval training. The trainer will “force” you to work at the required interval power. You don’t need to shift or think about it—just pedal. When it’s time for a power increase, the trainer will apply the required amount of resistance for you. It’s brilliant.
There are also other software plans out there to simulate outdoor riding and racing. Zwift is the probably the most popular—it combines a visually pleasing experience that’s designed to look like riding outside, paired with the increased resistance that simulates the ups and downs of riding on a road. So, for example, if you’re going uphill in the game, the resistance on the trainer will increase to reflect that. The same happens when you’re going downhill in game.
There are a variety of smart trainers out there, but they generally come in two distinct designs: wheel-on and wheel-off (also called Direct Drive trainers). These work exactly like they sound: wheel-on trainers work more like traditional trainers, where you put the bike on the trainer and tighten a barrel against the rear wheel. Wheel-off trainers, on the other hand, completely replace the bike’s rear wheel. These trainers come with their own cassettes and generally work with all axle types.
The difference between the two comes down to two thing: accuracy and price. The wheel-on design is significantly cheaper than its wheel-off counterpart, but it also isn’t as accurate. That’s not to say it’s inaccurate, just that a wheel-off design has a more precise way of collecting its power data since it’s in the hub of the trainer and not something that’s just pressing into the wheel. Remember earlier when we talked about power meters being more accurate when closer they are to the point of origin? The same thing applies here.
So when it comes to wheel-off trainers, the king of the crop is currently the Wahoo Kickr. This was the first smart trainer to really hit the masses, and for good reason: it’s an amazing piece of kit. It will also set you back $1200, which is a lot if you’re just looking for something to supplement over the winter.
Fortunately, there’s a wheel-off version of the Kickr, called the Kickr Snap. At $600, it’s half the price of a Kickr—and it still offers about 95 percent of the benefit. The Snap is really the way to go for all but the most serious of racers.
Of course, Wahoo isn’t the only option for smart trainers. CycleOps is also a highly recommended brand, and it offers both wheel-off and wheel-on trainers in the Hammer ($1200) and Mangus ($600), respectively.
Finally, there’s Tacx. This company offers several different trainer models, both wheel-on and off design, ranging from $379 for the wheel-on Flow Smart all the way up to $1600 for the powerful Neo Smart. You can see their full line of smart trainers here.
When it comes to choosing the right smart trainer, there are a few things to consider: Accuracy, slope/grade, and max power. For example, the $379 Tacx Neo Smart is the most limited trainer on this list, providing <10% accuracy, a max 6% grade/slope, and a max power of 800 watts. As a result, it’s probably not a good choice for a serious racer, because it’s only going to limit your trainer.
By contrast, the $600 Wahoo Kickr Snap offers accuracy of +/-3%, a max grade of 12%, and max output of 1500 watts. That’s a pretty big difference. For the same price, the CycleOps Magnus has +/-5% accuracy, 15% grade, and 1500 watts maximums. That’s a pretty close race, and your training goals should be reflected in the purchase.
How and Where to Buy
Here’s the thing: you can find most of this stuff online, and that’s cool. There’s probably no reason not to pick up a head unit from Garmin, or snag a headlight from some other retailer.
But when it comes to bigger purchases, like power meters, electronic drivetrains, or even smart trainers, we recommend going to to your local bike shop and discuss your options with them. Not only can they get whatever you need, you get the benefit of having them as your support system should any issues arise. This is especially helpful when picking up something like a drivetrain. With an investment as big as serious cycling requires, it usually pays off to have local support.
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